Why federalism? Why indeed.

my Trade Tripper column in the 8-9 October 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

A phrase we need to remember: “one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too.” Taken literally, that saying (like “more or less”) actually makes no sense. After all, why have a cake if in the end you can’t eat it? But what it really means is that you can’t have an existing cake if you’ve already eaten it. In short: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have it all.

Something to keep in mind whenever we speak of federalism.

Normally, federal forms of government are what we think of when we see the United States (with a land area of 9.8 million square kilometers), Brazil (8.5 million sq. km.), Australia (7.7 million sq. km.), Canada (10 million sq. km.), and Mexico (2 million sq. km).

A far cry from the Philippines 300,000 sq. km.

Of course, there is Germany (357,021 sq. km.) or even Austria (84,000 sq. km). But one can always find an exception for anything. Such as Indonesia, which has 1.9 million sq. km. and yet retains a unitary government.

There is also, however, history and culture. Particularly the United States, which had a vibrant “13 colonies” already existing, with years of experience in constitutional government, before they were assembled as the US.

The point is: through the years, despite deeply specific varying local traditions and quirks, there was already a strong preexisting common set of values and beliefs that unified those federal countries as a whole.

Unless, therefore, one has a level of comfort regarding the strength of that unity, then, as the Institute for Development and Electoral Assistance puts it (see Federalism, 2015), federalism offers disadvantages. It can “exacerbate existing differences, sometimes leading to deeper conflicts or state failure.” Also, “federalism is a complicated, often legalistic, form of government, which can be expensive and can hinder the coherent development and application of policies.”

There is also the misconception about federalism being merely a division of governmental functions: essentially one layer but of two levels. Not true. That’s what we have right now with the present Constitution and the Local Government Code. It can be mostly top-down or bottom-up depending on how Congress formulates implementing legislation.

Federalism actually creates two layers of government. Or to be more precise: two parallel authorities each equally exercising power over the citizenry.

Each “State” (i.e., province or region) is left to its own devices to generate income and must provide all the basic governmental services. It has the capacity to make its own laws, as well as judicial and law enforcement. Business permit or driver’s license requirements, for example, would be different in Makati from Davao. Any legal document could only be recognized by the issuing “State” unless reciprocity arrangements are made with other “States.”

The national (or, to use US terminology, the “federal”) government then focuses on foreign affairs and national defense. It necessarily has its own set of laws cutting across the different “States” and must generate its own income.

By right, citizens are free to leave poorly managed “States” and transfer to those providing a better way of life: lower business taxes and less government regulation, as well as better health care or education. Incidentally, the national (or Federal) government cannot logically be obliged to help failing States.

Frankly, that would be good for reasons of subsidiarity and to have a free market competition going on between the different local government units (LGUs), as well as to rid some provinces of their dependency on the Internal Revenue Allocation.

Otherwise, what is the point of creating a federal form of government?

But if the issues really just boil down to funds control and capability to have a faster government response, then we don’t need to amend the Constitution nor shift to federalism for that.

Except for military, police, and judicial services, the rest (i.e., welfare, health, education, tourism, infrastructure) can constitutionally be made the prime responsibility of the LGUs. Hence, Article X: “The Congress shall enact a local government code which shall provide for a more responsive and accountable local government structure.” Furthermore, each LGU “shall have the power to create its own sources of revenues and to levy taxes,” which “shall accrue exclusively” to the LGU.

Furthermore, proceeds from the utilization of natural resources within an LGU’s area can be legislated such that “equitable share” (Article X.7) from the income thereof means 100% goes to the LGU, in turn logically justifying IRA share (i.e., “just share,” Article X.6) in the remaining national fund to “zero.”

If LGUs think that’s extreme, then to push for federalism truly becomes nonsensical.

It’s like asking for more power sans the responsibility.

Put another way: if local governments really are eager to make it on their own, without imperial Manila breathing down their necks, the same can all be done through congressional legislative action, without amending the Constitution or changing our unitary form of government.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.